By Yuki Noguchi
Friday, January 17, 2003; Page WE30
You wanna play?
He pauses slightly, mid-spin, as if the hesitation of a half-twisted torso poses the question.
A shimmy shimmy of the shoulders is my answer:
A linger on a turn sets up a joke.
A wriggle of the hips interrupts with a response: Beat you to the punchline!
At its best, swing dancing feels like great conversation. It has playful spirit that's all wit. That razzmatazz, that blues in your shoes, that swing thing. Rhythmic chitchat goes by many names, but avid dancers call it "connection."
You can scan a roomful of dancers and spot good connection. The awkward pair won't have the telltale bounce. The flashy ones with exaggerated moves won't be in sync. It's the couple with the light feet moving in harmony that catch the eye.
Connection is a chemical measure of how much you get each other on the dance floor. It's spontaneous. It's goofy. It's magic.
And I'm addicted to the stuff.
Luckily for me, Washington supplies the best swing dancing on the East Coast. This area sustains a retro-boom partly inspired by the Gap advertisements of circa 1998, which featured poorly executed, inauthentic swing-dance routines as part of their pitch for khaki pants. While venues in Boston have petered out over the years, and New York's scene has faded to give way to the next trend, Washington's swing subculture continues to provide plenty of venues, live music and good dancers to satisfy my near-daily cravings.
The number of venues during the week even exceeds that of San Francisco, a major hub of swing: Mondays at Chevy Chase Ballroom; Tuesdays at Clarendon Ballroom; Wednesdays are best at K2 in Beltsville, but Lulu's Mardi Gras Club on M Street is closer to downtown. It's Chevy Chase or Zoots and Dolls in Fairfax on Fridays; Glen Echo Park on Saturdays.
For the unindoctrinated, the scene might appear a bit cultish.
My mother, who lives nearby, feels she's lost her daughter to a hobby. I come home to her sober messages on my voice mail: I guess you're out dancing...again.
But Mom, there's joy in a swivel! I need a balboa turn! Jazz is playful, and swing is silly. It mesmerizes and intoxicates. It's as good for the soul as it is for the body.
Longtime dancer Larry MacDonald smiled like Buddha when I asked him what he likes most about dancing. "Harmony," he said. "Harmony I achieve with a woman. My whole life, I've been trying to get that off the dance floor."
My friend Erik Newton started dancing four years ago after seeing an elderly man kiss his wife sweetly on the forehead after a dance.
"I want that," he said.
Couples, though, are the anomaly in the swing scene. The style of dance is often cast in an oversexed role, as in "swinging lifestyle," but that's a misperception. It's mostly a single person's sport, and the norm is to go stag. Though you dance with a partner, you typically switch almost every song.
It's not uncommon to find yourself dancing with someone with whom the only thing you have in common is dance.
Age, in particular, is where swing shows its greatest diversity. I've danced with a high school student whose mother is also a regular. One of the most playful dancers I know is a man named Barry, whose college-age daughter often accompanies him to dances. Sometimes it's the parents who hook their kids on dancing, but more often parents are the ones who become hooked watching their children dance. (My mother took swing lessons for a while so she could see me.) A typical dance will get strong representation from twenty- and thirty-somethings like myself, and an almost equal number of men and women like Larry MacDonald and Bob Schmitt, my middle-aged bachelor pals. The retired reverend Arnold Taylor, an excellent dancer at 77, still vividly remembers learning to dance in grange halls during the Depression 72 years ago.
Swing dancing is light and funny, and in a buttoned-down city that often takes itself too seriously, that can be refreshing.
It's also almost laughably wholesome. The main thing about swing dancing is the dancing. There are those who come to scope out a date, but they usually fall into two categories: the uncommitted types who give up after a few dances yield them no dates, or the converts who discover that they'd rather be dancing than romancing, anyway.
There are some rules of engagement, of course. In no particular order, they are: Do nothing untoward; if someone asks you to dance and you're out of breath, politely decline, but seek them out for a dance later; remember that you, too, were once a beginner; don't eat raw onions before dancing; be nice; change shirts when you get too sweaty, and for heaven's sake throw away the ones that smell like mildew.
Those are really the things that matter when you're a swing dancer. Unlike many Washingtonians, dancers generally don't care what you do for a living. I've danced with dozens of leads (leads are male dancers, female dancers "follow" the leads) who at best know my first name and how long I have been dancing, but don't seem to care one iota what I do during the day to support my dance habit.
As habits and vices go, this one is inexpensive. Admission typically costs $5, up to $15 at the most, for a famous 16-piece band event or fundraiser. I figure: That's the cost of one night of bar-hopping in Adams Morgan spread over a whole week.
I started dancing about two years ago, after watching one of my best friends from college hone her swing skills during a brief stint living in San Francisco.
My introduction wasn't easy. I spent most of my time observing from the sidelines, hoping a good lead would take pity on my poor skills and dance with me anyway, all the while burning with envy as I watched the better dancers glide and turn in perfect synchronicity with their partners.
Breaking into the scene can be intimidating. All beginners become acutely aware of a caste system on the floor and feel it would be disorderly to ask a Brahmin to dance. I found that chatting with people on the sidelines, being friendly and mustering the guts to ask a better dancer paid off.
Initially, I made a host of beginner's mistakes, starting with my clothing. I wore black platform shoes that looked the part but didn't give me the cushion or the stability that swing dancing requires. I wore shirts and pants that weren't fitted enough, so the excess material trapped air and sweat and slowed my movement. I had long hair that reached almost to my waist and did violence to men's faces when I spun around.
On occasion, some dancers take pains to fashion their hair Rita Hayworth style and comb through vintage shops to find the right zoot suit or dress. But on any given night, the vast majority of dancers seem to prefer function to form. I am one of those people: I dance in my old running shoes and tape the underside with duct tape to slide better. I wear pants and skirts made of soft material that doesn't chafe, even after hours of bouncing around. I wear fitted shirts or tank tops that allow my skin to breathe but are tight enough that they don't flap around, trapping air as I move. I cut my hair to shoulder length and keep it tied close to my head.
Many things about swing are similar around the country. The etiquette, for example, or the way dancers dress up or dress down. Dancers on the whole are also consistently friendly, especially to dancers from other cities.
Yet every city has its own style. Sometimes it's so distinctive that you can identify a stranger's home town by the way he or she dances. This happened recently with someone named Ray, whose style reminded me of the smoother, slower blues style of my friends in St. Louis, where I grew up. Sure enough, Ray, who was in Washington for a few days on business, was from Cleveland -- a stylistic cousin of my Midwestern home town. The reverse happened to me when I was dancing in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco one Sunday a couple of months ago and met Rob Wooldridge, a likable English teacher who instantly identified me as an out-of-towner because I carried my upper body with more "tension" in my arms.
In that sense, dance styles are like regional dialects. It's not clear where they come from or who perpetuates them, but they betray your dance origins.
Insofar as Washington has a distinctive style, it is what my colleague at The Post and fellow dance lover Jen Balderama calls "Hollywood style with a Washington flavor."
Hollywood style is a subset of swing typified by a very taut connection in the arms, so that the follow is leaning back slightly, keeping an elastic but tight link with her partner. The effect is that the dancers look as if they are swinging around in elliptical shapes, gliding rapidly backward with the follow swiveling from her hips in a distinctly sexy way. As the name suggests, this is typical of a style found in Los Angeles; in Washington, it is combined with a speedy jitterbug flair.
What determines a city's style has a great deal to do with who teaches in those cities. In Washington, the most marketed, and therefore most accessible, pair of teachers is Tom Koerner and Debra Sternberg, which makes them the proverbial parents of the swing style here.
There are other teachers in the area as well. John "Psychoboy" McCalla teaches classes in Bethesda, Frederick and Baltimore. Donna Barker teaches swing and other kinds of dance, generally in Arlington. Zoots and Dolls in Fairfax hosts Friday night dance parties preceded by dance classes taught by various teachers.
Most people who learn to dance in Washington, however, start with the duo of Koerner and Sternberg, who usually host five or more dance parties a week. They teach five nights a week, including an hour-long beginners lesson followed by an intermediate class. Their sessions cost $96 and last eight weeks. Following the intermediate class, people start to file in for Koerner and Sternberg's open dance parties, which usually draw enough people to cause traffic congestion on the dance floor.
Koerner, who calls himself a "recovering" divorce lawyer and has a penchant for off-color jokes, said the classes are attracting more and more new students -- as many as 120 people in one of last season's classes. After years of practicing law, he is trying to make a full-time job of his passion.
The fact that he may be doing just that is a sign that a new generation of dancers is coming up through the ranks.
"We don't have a Britney Spears or a Run-DMC to, you know, promote Lindy," said Sternberg, who at 49 is a superbly perky woman who performs death-defying over-the-head aerial moves to frighten and inspire her students. So Koerner and Sternberg promote like crazy. "We always see new generations coming through; you have to rely on people who are going to start dancing" to keep the scene alive. She has been dancing for 15 years, and together with Koerner spends most weekday and weekend events teaching two, hour-long classes.
Critics of Koerner and Sternberg say they don't teach much about posture, body frame, stance and other fundamental skills that enable a person to communicate well with a partner. They go over that in the first class but then quickly proceed to teaching steps and routines of progressive difficulty, so that often by the end of the class some students are kicking around haphazardly off the beat.
I took one class from Koerner and Sternberg -- the only class to date I've taken in swing. I found that I learned most from the charity of leads who could teach me the fundamentals.
What makes good dancers is not how many moves they know but how they carry themselves. The most advanced dancers will spend hours on the most basic steps to improve their dance style. It makes sense, because swing is just a bunch of variations on a handful of basic step sequences: the triple step, the eight-count Lindy circle, and what are called Charleston, balboa and shag. If those aren't etched deeply and cleanly in your muscle memory, there is not much point to building your repertoire.
The person most responsible for my dance education is probably Jason Aldrich. He and I make fun of each others' politics, but he loves dance as much as I do, and he's a supremely patient teacher.
Jason has a smooth style that is clear yet gentle. He doesn't -- as some beginner leads do -- jerk my arms out of their sockets to get me to move quickly. If I keep my arms with the proper amount of tension, I effortlessly end up where he intends me to be. Keeping my balance when spinning or turning with him is also easy, because he counterbalances my weight with his. Mainly, it's the combination of these two things that makes us have a good connection, so that when he decides to do a complicated move, I can generally follow, because my body naturally responds to his lead.
I have kept up my commitment of dancing at least three nights a week for the last two years, except when I was running a strict regimen of 40 miles a week to train for the Marine Corps Marathon. During that time, I disappeared from the dance scene for about six months, but I returned to it at an even more feverish pace three months before the marathon because I injured my knee.
Dancing became my de facto training. I danced six or sometimes seven days a week -- an average of probably 12 hours altogether. That unorthodox regimen kept me in sufficient shape that I ran for the first time in three months on marathon day and was able to complete the race in about five hours -- within 30 minutes of my original desired time.
Dance feels like a more balanced exercise than running, and getting a workout happens to be a byproduct of the fun.
Doug Won, a wonderful dancer in the St. Louis scene and an orthopedic surgeon, told me the arm movements -- even simple pushes and turns -- get the heart pumping faster. Most of the songs fall in medium to fast tempo range, but the exercise is low-impact, so the heart works at that ideal range that helps the body burn fat, rather than sugars, he said.
Swing dancing has another health virtue that probably contributes to its appeal to older people: It spares the joints. Contrary to popular perception, swing dancing is not a set of gymnastic flips in which the woman lands with a jarring thud; few people perform those moves except for purposes of performance. So the knee injury that I sustained doesn't bother me at all, even when I twist, turn, bend and bounce.
Longevity is on dance's side.
Washington's swing scene shows no sign of fading, and those who are nourished by it show no sign of aging.
It stays because it draws you in, sticks to you and lingers. When Ella Fitzgerald's voice caramelizes a dance floor, who can resist partaking of that sweet joy?
Yuki Noguchi covers telecommunications for The Washington Post.
© 2003 The Washington Post Company